Detroit, cops sued over wrongful murder conviction

Oralandar Brand-Williams
The Detroit News

Davontae Sanford, the Detroit man who was wrongly imprisoned for nearly nine years for four slayings a decade ago sued the city of Detroit and a pair of police officers Monday for the handling of the murder case that sent him to prison.

Sanford says a casual conversation with a Detroit detective turned him into a suspect in the quadruple homicide in 2007. He was convicted and sent to prison for the crime before a Michigan State Police reinvestigation led to Sanford being released from prison last year and the charges dismissed.

Sanford and his lawyer said he was wrongly incarcerated from age 14 until he was 23 for the slayings at a reputed drug house on Runyon Street on Detroit’s east side. A judge dismissed the charges against Sanford in July 2016.

In the lawsuit, Sanford’s attorneys say his nightmare of being questioned and then detained by police “was no accident” Sept. 17, 2007.

“Rather it was the direct result of serious misconduct by Defendant Detroit Police Department detectives, who railroaded an easy and vulnerable target rather than do the hard work,” according to the legal briefs filed in the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Detroit.

Sanford is suing the City of Detroit along with officer Michael Russell and former Detroit police commander James Tolbert.

Tolbert declined comment Monday when reached by phone, saying his attorneys would have to look at the lawsuit. Efforts to reach Russell were not successful.

City of Detroit attorney Melvin “Butch” Hollowell said Monday he had not seen the lawsuit and that the city doesn’t comment on pending litigation.

Sanford confessed and pleaded guilty to the murder. He says he was a naive youngster and that the officers and his defense attorney coerced the confession.

“I was young; I was just lost in space,” Sanford said in a previous interview with The News. “I couldn’t really comprehend what was going on; it all happened so fast. I got arrested and ... eight months later I was in prison.”

According to the lawsuit, Sanford is learning disabled, functionally illiterate and blind in one eye and the officers “threatened Davontae and made false promises to try to induce him to confess.”

Two weeks after Sanford went to prison, Vincent Smothers was arrested and confessed he was a hit man who had been hired to kill 12 people, including the four on Runyon. He is behind bars for several other murders but not the quadruple homicide.

Sanford said he suffered emotional and physical problems, “severe mental anguish” and “loss of earnings and earning potential.”

Sanford’s attorney Bill Goodman said his client wants to be financially “compensated” for all that he has gone through.

“He needs to support himself,” Goodman said Monday. “He needs a lot of therapy.”

Goodman said Sanford would use whatever money he gets from the lawsuit to help his family and to get a home.

“It’s a strong case and we should win under a decent system of justice,” he said Goodman.